The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Sounding the Margins: Collected Writings 1992 - 2009

by Pauline Oliveros
(Deep Listening Institute; Kingston, NY)

Chapter 1: Is Jazz About Music Anymore?

My “American Music”: Soundscape, Politics, Technology, Community

Is there any point in talking about something called “American music?” Is the idea relevant anymore? Is there Canadian music? Is there Swiss music? We know that nowadays all musical threads are weaving to­gether. “Our” music is becoming assimilated into many worlds of mu­sic (1). And because of evolving communication systems that will happen more and more.

As with the old idea of the American melting pot, we now have a world melting pot. Yet, although a fusion of cultures is happening in all the arts, music may be foremost in this process. Musicians may be the vanguard of fusion because of one hundred years of dissemination through broadcasts and recordings. Now, in the projects and work of the Deep Listening Institute, Ltd. (described below) we are part of this fusion (2). As time goes on, we who promote Deep Listening® will be reaching out further to all continents to try to bring more people into working together across borders (3).

Some might watch the news and see the world actually dividing more with increasing barriers to communication and guarded boundaries. But that depends on one’s perspective. Government perspective is one thing, but people perspective is another. Corporations seem to want to take over the world. Franchise operations always threaten to drive small businesses out of neighborhoods and change the character of those neigh­borhoods. Worldwide empires level values: food, for example, accelerates into speedily served hamburgers and French fries without the niceties of fine service, beautiful settings, and time for conversation. Then there is the exponential climb of the world of technology (about which I will say more, later).

There’s something fundamentally American about resisting catego­rization. (I certainly resist and refuse it.) Always looking for “the next best thing” seems hard-wired into our character. “America” was born of exploration and westward frontiers. And of course that is exactly what I’ve been doing all these years: exploring. I began by listening to my home environment as a child and remembering the sounds. Later I was exploring my inner world and experiencing the sensation of music with Sonic Meditation (4). I was exploring consciousness—a word that for years was not admissible in the scientific community. Consciousness had no location, could not be measured, and was considered an epiphenom­enon. Now consciousness is a crucial part of scientific study (5). When I was beginning my study of consciousness in relation to music in 1970, a conference on consciousness was held at University of CaliforniaSan Diego (UCSD) (6). I attended because of my own research. I was looking for scientific evidence of various states of consciousness. This conference brought out a lot of ideas, concepts, and studies that were beginning to take place and which paralleled the development of my work with Sonic Meditation. Of course I had no credence in the scientific community. However, I did have then—and still have—thoughts and ideas shaped by my own experiments and experiences in working with consciousness or attentional strategies and patterns. Perhaps I may now be getting closer to some recognition of my research in this marginal dance between cat­egories that I have been doing for almost forty years.


Certainly my childhood in Texas opened into a “wonderland” of natural sound. There were large rural areas, which I relished early on. I had a recent reconnection with these memories: I was in Houston in April 2007 to receive the Resounding Vision Award from Nameless Sound (a spin-off organization from the Deep Listening Institute, Ltd.) (7). The reception was at the Art Guys Studio, which is right in the old neighborhood that I lived in as a child—not a neighborhood, really, but literally a farm area (8). All of the farmland is pretty much gone now, but the studio’s location is very much like what I knew about and experienced as a child, with a pecan orchard, pine woods and berry patches. In those days, what you could hear in terms of the natural world was just amazing: very, very dense sound that varied according to the time of day or night, because the lowland of Houston was a natural habitat filled with numerous varieties of insects and birds. The sounds are still present in a few places that are not paved over. But the natural sound is diminishing and masked by technological noise. The asphalt and cement have covered over so much of it. The frogs, for example, have just about disappeared in the inner city in Houston. The seventeen-year cicadas cannot emerge from their underground gestation through cement and asphalt. The great choruses I would hear of birds and insects are not there anymore in force (9). Even so, the soundscape remains very powerful in my own memories.

In 1970, when I created Sonic Meditation, I worked with a group of students at UCSD, taking them outside for practice as often as I could. I took them out to Joshua Tree National Monument for a weekend where we—a group of about twenty—practiced Sonic Meditations in the high desert. The landscape of Joshua Tree is very spectacular and unusual: huge boulders and the Joshua trees themselves growing naturally in very beautiful and unusual forms. Working in such an environment with Sonic Meditations had a profound impact on all of us. Practicing this way has been an important thread going through my work since 1970—always seeking natural environments in which to perform. This means taking performance out of the concert hall paradigm. The concert hall, of course, has a profound effect on music because of the construc­tive core of the music. But its basic trait is enclosed space. Sound from the outside world is shut out intentionally for exclusive focus on the music being performed. In contrast, my paradigm is to perform in open space and include everything that is sounding.

America, of course, is a country with many beautiful places to go. (I take the song “America the Beautiful” seriously and still love it.) I’ve been to the desert and also to the woods. For their first ten years the Deep Listening Retreats were at Rose Mountain, 8,000 feet up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico (10). Participants all felt very affected by being in such a place with very little impact from development. Rose Mountain was a wonderfully natural place. The only unnatural sounds to be heard were jet planes flying over once in a while and perhaps the intermittent sound of the water pump. We were in a place that used solar energy and rainwater, and the quiet of that technology was wonderful for listening practice (11).

Nowadays a lot of young people go out with recorders into natural environments. They seem very interested in what they can record and then use in their music. It’s as if they are trying to recreate that which has been lost; they get very interested in those sounds because they are really beautiful. And natural sounds are also full-range sounds, whereas a lot of electronic sound is not. Car radios or small speaker systems are very fo­cused and localized sources of sound bounded by a narrow audio range. However when you go out into nature, sound is all around you and that immersion brings back a lot of something that’s missing. So many composer/performers are now avid collectors of natural sounds.

Of course, an analog or digital recording is only a documentation, a representation of sound and music. No recording as yet can be the same as the real thing in all its dimensions. All recordings require us to fill in what is not there. Just as any score is just a representation of what is in­tended, one has to understand what the performance practice is in order to really play the score. The performance practice of this wonderland of sound in which I grew up is Deep Listening, of which my brief defini­tion is this: experiencing an expanded awareness of sound, silence, and sounding. Experiencing is the key word. All performance practice has to be experienced to be understood.


In the late 1960s some of my musical colleagues were trying to adopt a scientific approach to their music and to align themselves with the sci­entific method. The resulting music was complex and intellectual and brought about a kind of separation from the body. Their disembodied music required exclusive focus to understand. People could not—and cannot—experience it in their body. While many composers were taking this extreme intellectual approach, which I think came from its relation­ship to the scientific paradigm, I went in the opposite direction. This does not mean that my music has no intellectual component or that I am anti-intellectual. Ideas drive our consciousness, our development and evolution. We must have a continually developing intellect. That is why I admire almost all music, including intellectual music. However for me there must be a balance between exclusionary activity and inclusive activity, a balance of body/mind.

In 1970 when I began to create my Sonic Meditations, I was really de­parting from the avant-garde paradigm of the time and creating my own way, my own path. My colleagues, I think, were very puzzled by what I was doing, because I had been brought to UCSD in 1967 to start the graduate program in electronic music, which I did. By 1970, though, I was beginning to change my ways of listening and responding. It wasn’t that I abandoned electronic music or anything else that was progressive. I have always used technology—as all musicians use technology, whether it’s musical instruments or computers; they’re all a part of “technology.”

In my changing perspective on my musical activities I was reacting, in a way, to the death of a student who immolated himself on the plaza at UCSD in a Vietnam War protest. Like many others, I also practically witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy on television. These up-close and personal experiences—not to mention the more distant My Lai Massacre—moved me to change (12).

Those were very disturbing times. So I began to center myself with the work I was doing with Sonic Meditation, feeling that people needed connections, interconnections, rather than separation in order to play together well for one thing (as musicians), but also to be together well as human beings on a planet that is shared by all. I could understand at that point whether people were listening inclusively or exclusively. Focusing hard on something sometimes makes you lose track of where you are because you are so focused. This experience happens often. And I am sure everyone has experienced someone not listening to them. I began to understand that many people felt that they were not being heard (something especially true today, both locally and globally). I recognized that being heard is a step toward being understood. Being understood is a step toward being healed. Understanding is a step to­ward building community.

I am trying to facilitate inward experience because people have to feel in their bodies what they have to do in order to create change. I don’t think one can create change just with words. One has to have a full body response that has total presence and impact. That does not mean that words are not effective. They are; words are powerful. Without engage­ment of the body, though, words are literally disembodied and become more and more abstract. And the world is not necessarily an abstraction, especially for someone who gets hit with a roadside bomb.

I teach at Rensselaer now, the oldest technological school in the coun­try, established in 1824. Rensselaer president Shirley L. Jackson has given us this motto: “Why not change the world?” So all of us on the faculty have that thought on our backburners: “Why not change the world?” But are Americans changing the world in a good way? That too depends on one’s perspective. I don’t think the change that was brought through attacking Iraq was very productive. The result is horrible, completely horrible. The government administration seems to be totally insensi­tive to this horror of death and destruction. Before the Iraq War started I was very much against the Iraq War even before it started, because I am against war in any case: war is an unsupportable tantrum.

Before the Iraq War began I was talking to a broker about an invest­ment. The young woman who was working for the brokerage said some­thing about going to war. I said, “Well I’m against war. I don’t want to have anything to do with war. I have no interest in investment that supports that direction whatever.” She then got a strange look on her face, her eyes turned inward, and it was almost as if she wasn’t there. She said, “But war is good for business.” I said, “What about the people that will be killed?” And she said, “Oh well, there won’t be that many.” It was obviously her corporate training saying these words, not her real self. She was too separated from her own feelings.

There is a certain meanness of spirit in corporate culture because of the exclusionary thinking and the goal-oriented straight-line work that they do, the “black box” approach where the corporation is surrounded and protected from any outsiders banging on the box. There is ruthless heartlessness in terms of achieving their goals, their profits, their bottom- line. It is unconscionable. And the heartlessness of the present war for me is simply mind-boggling.


America is noted for its technology, a key element of being American. “Yankee know-how” it was called: inventions, engineering, all of that is part of being in America and being an American. Now we see how technology is impacting the world. Some of it is very unfortunate—like the war in Iraq (and all the other wars). Some of it is harder to gauge. This “know-how” works both ways.

Railroads, for example, had a great impact on the sense of time (13). And that had a huge impact on music. Traveling on a rail and not deviating from it, traveling through time rather than wandering away. But coming back, taking side trips, detours, following your nose—that’s the freedom of being free of tracks. The “tracks” became part of our institutions. Tracks are built into the educational system, including the teaching of music. So the impact of the railroad is, I think, very strong. Are you on the right track? The pull of nature is still there but it’s more and more difficult to follow it, to be part of nature.

The train was very much a part of my growing up because that was a principal mode of transportation before airlines. Flying is somewhat different. It’s point to point, like the railroad, but faster. So it has become one of many impactful accelerations. When I first began to fly from, say, Houston to San Francisco, that was unusual. But in my twenty-nine years in California, flying has become almost as ordinary as taking a bus. Other musicians and I began to have mobility that we never experienced before, now being able to play in New York, for example, then again quickly in Los Angeles. A lot happened with that kind of change. Think of the flying conductors: Seiji Ozawa in Boston and then in Japan (14).

Flying also changes one’s perspective of the landscape—very, very different from traveling through it by railroad. I had the experience of flying to Japan in 2005 for a performance. We took a flight with one overhead television monitor and individual monitors at the seat with the camera pointing down at the landscape. We flew over the Arctic and Siberia—just amazing, incredible. The scene was dreamlike, because we were looking down and seeing all the patterns in the snow and ice. My partner, Ione, wrote a poem about this experience on the way and performed it at our concert in Kanazawa, right after we arrived. That’s how fast art can happen: on the way and drawing on the experience of the landscape.

So inevitably technology distances us from the landscape but also gives us a perspective of the landscape that we could not have had otherwise. Much has happened to extend and expand what we can sense. Expansion of senses will continue to happen. We are in the process of merging with technology as we have been doing for a long time. I have a pair of glasses on right now—technology. To put on a pair of headphones and walk around and listen (more technology) has the effect of expanding your listening. I remember the first time that I appeared on television (in 1950 in Houston) with a dance band that I was playing in. Of course I never had a television set until much later.

Since then television has changed America and the rest of the world. And television continues to change the world. The next thing of course is the internet, which is changing the world faster that anything else. The rise of technology never stops. It is in a straight line from the beginning of history (15). And now the rise is in an exponential leap of development. At the same time the human condition keeps going up and down. We have crisis and crash, but never a straight line, as there is with technology.


Being able to commune means being heard; there’s listening going on. I began to incorporate this idea into my Sonic Meditations, which are really about the direction of attention and the directing of attention to sound or to silence or to sounding with the understanding of when to listen exclusively and when to listen inclusively and how to balance between those two forms of listening. Certainly this has to happen in an ensemble, in ensemble playing. First of all you have to focus on your part and your instrument. But if you are so focused on your part or instrument that you don’t understand the interrelationship or interconnectedness of how your part and instrument is working in the ensemble, you’ll find it not very easy to play in a group.

Each time I composed a new Sonic Meditation during those couple of years in 1971 and ‘72, I began to play with those ideas or realities of direc­tion of attention. That is what I’ve been doing all these years, working with the forms of attention, deepening my own experience and understanding of how attention leads to the heightened awareness or expansion of mind I am after. Attentive listening is the core of how to create community, whether it is an ensemble of musicians or a neighborhood watch.

This brings me to the experiences leading up to the Deep Listening Convergence, a project of the Deep Listening Institute, Ltd., completed in June 2007 (16). During our seventeen years of doing Deep Listening Retreats for one week each summer, we created a community. Several hundred people had been to the retreats—though as of now (2007) only about thirty-two of them have completed the three-year Deep Listen­ing certification program (17). In 1995 we started an e-list called DEEPL because people would return to their part of the world and then want to be in touch with retreat activities and the people they had met (18). The DEEPL e-list helps to do that. DEEPL became a very powerful commu­nity ground—a community commons, where everything from births to deaths takes place. If somebody has a problem, the community gathers around.

We sadly experienced two deaths of Deep Listeners who had been to the retreat, for example, and the community rallied around. The first one died of a brain tumor. What happened during the nine months between his diagnosis and his death was very well documented on the DEEPL and remains in the archives. The experience and support during this process was quite powerful. I am still in touch with his widow and I know that DEEPL really helped her through this grievous loss. Then right away we had another community member with a brain tumor. Both of these men died at home with their partners and Deep Listeners they knew in the area, who were there for them both actually and virtually. That is community. All were deeply interested and supportive as these tragedies unfolded on DEEPL.

Of course there are also the joyous events, births, the children who are already acquainted with everybody (because it is fun to be included). At the 2007 Convergence we had a sixteen-month old baby among us. He was present throughout and participating in joyful wonderful ways. His mother had composed a piece for the retreat last summer (2006), a piece called Voice Mommy (19). The baby had just been born and so the mother could not attend the retreat. So she sent a piece she had composed for us to do. Here is how it worked: Everyone at the retreat was asked to secretly choose a “voice mommy” and all during the week to follow the voice of that person, listen for it, and listen for all its subtle charac­teristics. On the last day of the retreat she instructed us all to get into a cuddle-huddle, then begin very softly to start sounding, to identify our “voice mommy” from the sounding huddle, then to make our way to that person and let him or her know. Voice Mommy was hilarious, wonder­ful, and touching—a very impressive thing to do. This year the mother was here at the Convergence with her baby (and, of course, everybody knows who the baby is today). That’s the kind of community we have built.

In the Convergence we brought together the thirty-two certificate hold­ers as well as a few artists who had been associated either through our recording label or through concerts over the years. Including our cer­tificate holders we had forty-five musicians. Although we were in touch with many other participants, we limited the attendance to certificate holders the first two days in order to answer the central question: “What is your relationship to your certificate?” Through this meeting we wanted to open up ways for them to take responsibility and help to develop this network, this new community.

We convened in the Lifebridge Sanctuary in High Falls, New York—a very, very beautiful place (20). We had a day of discussing what the certifi­cate program is and how it could evolve. Also, we had prepared mate­rial, the forty-five of us, working together on the Internet using SKYPE, a telephonic (VO-IP) system that can host up to ten people in a web-based audio conference free of charge (21). One of our ideas was to use this technology to form new ensembles, something like a little dating game: you move around, meet different people you didn’t know, and play with them. This activity spawns a lot of ideas, a lot of pieces, and a lot of improvisation.

To be sure, many people were skeptical of the communication system and frustrated with it from time to time because it was not perfect. But the truth is, we would not have time to rehearse the large number of pieces (25) that were created and that we performed. The premise was this: each person rehearsed his or her piece online and got it ready, then when they came to the Deep Listening Convergence they had a little bit of time to check it. That’s it. So the concerts were the rehearsals and the rehearsals were the concerts and the people involved had all this training in the retreats that enabled them to make things work. Given the way we had organized all of this, they played the pieces a little differently, of course. There was a wonderful kind of connection they were able to make, first with themselves and then whomever they were performing with—and the audience too, of course.

At the Convergence four concerts were produced. We began with a private concert at the Lifebridge. The night after Lifebridge, we played in Troy at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, then in Hudson the next night at TimeSpace Ltd., and then back to the Lifebridge Sanctuary for the final concert in the afternoon. Each concert was totally different—different pieces, different groupings of people performing together. The last audience was the largest, forty or fifty people or so. (In upstate New York it is very tough to get people out to concerts. For us there was maybe a local audience of twenty or so. And of course the group itself is also an audience: not everybody was playing in every piece, but they were listening to everything. So it looked like we had more audience than we did!) We have great documentation of all those performances. We had audio, video, and photo documentation, while several people were writing up the experiences as well.

Overall, I must say that I’m very, very happy about this Convergence. It was generally a very wonderful experience. For a week people came together at the Lifebridge Sanctuary and in the performances and found not only incredible excitement but the wonder of connecting and recon­necting with people they had not met before except over SKYPE and other technologies. That energy continued throughout the whole week. There were no negative vibes of any kind. Having experienced it, I don’t see it as a culminating event. I see it as the beginning and an initiation of a new level of what we are accomplishing with the Deep Listening Institute, Ltd.

SKYPE technology allows a person to actually see and hear someone, SKYPE video as well as audio. It is point to point only; video confer­ences with several people are not possible. If it is just one to one, both can see and hear one another. (For multiple people it remains audio only.) In any case the development of the technology supported the idea and realization of the Deep Listening Convergence. People can choose to be in touch with each other in a more intimate way, using technology. This kind of technology will continue to improve.

We use SKYPE because it works cross platform (i.e., it works on PC and on Mac). There’s also iChatAV, which allows four-way video con­ferences (Mac only; it doesn’t work on PCs, so we didn’t use it for the Convergence). We have assembled a lot of technologies—usable appli­cations. One, for example, allows recording all the rehearsals. Another allows recording both sides of a SKYPE conversation or conference. We can then upload them to the Web with an application called iMeem (22). Most of the Convergence rehearsals were posted so people could go to the web and listen to them afterwards, or if someone was just curious about what people were doing, he or she could go and listen, too. With iMeem, a person can also post a profile, add music, or whatever; it ac­cumulates information about each person. So the community is devel­oping with all of these new applications. The time has come where we can extend the community much more than we have in the past and go faster as we keep things moving. We’re pretty excited about this and everyone contributes ideas on how to go forward.

This is community building in a different way. The old way is to get people together in a neighborhood and over a long period of time a com­munity emerges. We built our community of Deep Listeners in both the old and this new way. It took seventeen years, and the process acceler­ates as the technological connections accelerate. Still, understand that we always want to get to the level of being in physical proximity. We’re not trying to say that there’s a substitute for that. Our Puritan heritage and its denial of the body is very much part of the problem we face with technology. The truth is: we are born into the world, we are very sensual, we need touch, we need to dance, we need to sing. We need all those things and more. But at some point controlling leaders realized that the best way to control people and have them do their bidding was to make people fearful of their bodies. Forbidding anything that is joyful and wonderful brings control over people. Such mean-spirited people use sensual oppression as a tool.

At the same time, though, we are saying that there is a way of facilitat­ing physical contact in such a way that a lot of the rituals of meeting are not necessary. Those rituals can be off-putting for people who are shy and not forthcoming. The right technologies can accelerate the whole process: people come out of cyberspace into physical reality. And, of course, it then becomes fascinating to see how people once known only through technology can now really interact in physical space. This is a whole new dimension.


What is America becoming? That’s a very fuzzy question these days. America has certainly changed in my lifetime. Looking over my seventy-five years—three quarters of a century (more than two-thirds of that making music)—many things have changed. Certain values, for example. I remember that in my childhood we saved string, rubber bands, paper bags, boxes, and different kinds of containers—all because we didn’t have throw-away packages. A cigar box in my childhood was a really interesting and savable item. (I still have some cigar boxes in a closet in Houston at my mother’s house. When I look at them I think about how they’ve been devalued.) I remember my sorrow as a child when throwaway packaging came into use. As time went on, more and more appeared, creating tons of garbage. The packaging industry has had a forceful impact on the landscape by promulgating “throwaway” stuff—even throwaway cameras! That has clearly devalued our rela­tionship to things. There are times when it’s very hard for me to throw things away. Because I was brought up during the depression, it seems extraordinarily wasteful and hurtful to the environment to do away with so much. So that remains a big issue for me.

I also remember the arrival of plastic and how it didn’t feel good like wood and metal, especially silverware. Now I think nothing about using plastic cutlery and eating utensils (or paper plates from time to time). But I always have a strange feeling about it. That feeling is always there because I recall the beauty of a fine place setting at a dinner table and the care and the time that it would take to make it. I can hardly understand, for example, how my mother and my grandmother did what they did as I was growing up, preparing all those dinners and other meals, not to mention having our clothes presentable, and all the rest. Now it is a completely different thing: one is often eating in the car on the way to the next meeting or to elsewhere. Those, too, are big changes.

What I’m lamenting in the culture generally is possibly happening in music as well. That could be positive and it could be negative. Some music is literally trash and you throw it away. There is commercial music, oc­casional music, music for a particular occasion that you don’t use again. And then there are the establishment organizations of symphony and operas and chamber music. They may play a piece once and then throw it away or at least never play it again. We have to deal with that. The music was not necessarily intended to be throwaway music, but it gets thrown away.

To be sure, we have to live with impermanence because nothing is for­ever, even though we’d like to think so. Here is another story. I brought my grandfather’s cello back with me from Houston a few weeks ago. It has been in the family for over one hundred years. The cello was given to my grandfather, who was an attorney, in payment for his services by an Englishman who had come through town in his horse and buggy and needed an attorney. He gave the cello as payment because he didn’t have cash. So my grandfather learned to play the cello. He played with friends in a chamber group in Houston, a group that eventually started the Houston Symphony. That cello was part of our family heritage and yet had actually been sitting in the house, almost never being played. For a time my mother wanted to sell it because she thought it might be worth something monetarily. But it turned out that both of us are pretty attached to it.

One of our cellists from Switzerland did not want to bring her instru­ment over for the Convergence because of possible damage by airline baggage handling. We were looking for a cello for her and I decided to bring my grandfather’s cello. I brought the cello on the Sunday before the Convergence was to begin, took the bow out of the case, and discov­ered that half the hair was hanging off. I found two wonderful people in Woodstock, one of whom corrected the bow while the other re-glued some open seams on the cello and reset the sound post. I wondered why the bow had eroded like that. The bow maker told me that mites had probably eaten the bowstrings, and also had eaten the glue from the cello body’s seams. The damage was repaired and the cello served very well in the Convergence.

I am going to hang on to that cello as a Deep Listening Institute re­source for our traveling cellists. We are going to preserve the cello a little longer. Even so, that preservation is part of a larger battle: all our media, the tapes and videos and so forth, even the online files, are all subject to drastic deterioration even though they are thought to be more per­manent media. There is a continuing struggle to keep our archive from deteriorating. Existence is impermanent. And of course I struggle with that—although there are some futurists who would like to overcome that impermanence as well.

What, then, of my work do I hope will last? Well, what I’m most inter­ested in is not specific pieces surviving, but the understanding of Deep Listening and of the practices and process that will lead to individual and collective creativity. That is what I would like to hand on.

People in many parts of the world are working with ideas that came out of my initial work with Sonic Meditations and making the ideas their own. Many composers have incorporated at least some of Sonic Meditations into their work. I have had several hundred people at the retreats but also thousands in workshops that I have given all over the world. I have taught Deep Listening at Rensselaer since 2001—that means about fifty students per year, most of whom are in science and technology and engineering. I also taught for six or seven years at Mills, which I continue to do by telepresence with SKYPE or iChatAV. (They see me, I see them. See and hear. And do.) I’ve taught Deep Listening at many institutions: UCSD, of course, Agnes Scott College, Oberlin College, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Northwestern, to name a few. The Society for American Music made me an honorary member several years ago; I presented a talk and workshops on Deep Listening at their conference. There are many musi­cologists who study and write about my work as well. There have been three or four Ph.D. dissertations about my work in Deep Listening.

Now that we have Google, I have a Google Alert for “Deep Listening”: every time those words are used, I get an online alert about it. When I started Google Alerts, I would get one alert only once in a while. Now I get them every day. Deep Listening is a meme that has entered our lan­guage. Musicians are using it, politicians are using it, religious leaders, spiritual leaders, business leaders. I see it used in all of these contexts, so I know that I have made an impact. People may not know where Deep Listening came from. I coined the term in 1988 for the recording Deep Listening, released in 1989 by New Albion (23). Thich Nhat Hanh started using Deep Listening for the fifth precept in Buddhism in 1991. Deep Listening is traveling around the world and I am very happy about that. The more deep listeners we have, the better the chance of having a peaceful society.

Deep Listening is part of a personal, and now communal, quest for peace. Right now I am wearing a Deep Listening Convergence t-shirt. The logo on the t-shirt: is “Deep Listening: a gesture of sonic peace.” Will peace win in the end? Well, either people will move in that direction and stop the violence in their own hearts and minds, or else we will all die and then it will be very peaceful (“rest in peace,” you know). Dying will happen to all of us at some point. Impermanence still rules. How­ever we should think about this question: what is your relationship to peace? Do you want to live in peace or do you want to live in violence? Which would you choose? One of the things we want to do according to my partner and coDeep Listening teacher Ione is “make peace more exciting than violence.” That is the process we are attempting.

Still, we have to thrive amidst a corporate culture. We were able to do the Deep Listening Convergence by using money from a grant that we received from the New York State Music Fund 2007 (24). The money for that fund was obtained by the Attorney General of New York State, El­liot Spitzer (now the governor), who sued record companies who were using payola to get their music on the radio. He won his suit, got a judg­ment of several million dollars, and designated all of that money to go to nonprofit organizations for alternative music. Deep Listening Institute, Ltd., applied and received a grant of $65,000 to use for the Deep Listen­ing Convergence. So Spitzer’s action was a kind of wonderful justice that enabled our project. As our master of ceremonies who introduced the concerts said, “Thanks to Governor Spitzer and a bunch of crooks in the music industry.”

What we learned from this experience is how we can shake the money tree and get the so-called crooks out of their positions of power. They do affect music. Payola is one of the ways corporate record companies use to get their mindless and narrowly similar kinds of music on the radio. They also buy the radio stations. The radio listeners have no other op­tions unless they tune to listener-sponsored stations. The co-opting of commercial radio is also like that of commercial television with shows like American Idol or similar corporate-sponsored programs and venues. Allow me to go a little deeper into this: the idea is that if you keep people stupid, then you can manipulate them more toward buying what you want them to buy. So I think the work we are doing is subversive. And I intend to continue doing it as much as I can. (You have to thank those crooks!)

Yes, I’m an American, although I’m not very happy with the govern­ment of our country and I don’t recognize the America that I knew in the government that is currently in power. But we probably are in an evolutionary cycle. There will be a change, of course, though I don’t know when or where. For now the bad guys are holding on to their power. But if Spitzer’s gesture of suing those record companies could happen, then who knows? If we can take out the ones that are using their power improperly, we will see a big change.

In the long term, I think we can evolve and expand our consciousness through changing our habit patterns, changing our habitual responses. Because if we are scared and do not move through the boundaries or open up new territory like the pioneers, we lose our chance for living in enjoyment and pleasure rather than living in terror and separation.

As I close, I have to challenge one more contemporary American trait. The scientific and technological world in which we live has developed into a kind of absolute certitude: nothing is admitted into the scientific paradigm unless it has been proved among the scientific community. The American Medical Association, for instance, sanctions medical proce­dures and medicine. At the same time, plenty of people are now saying (as I do in music), “Hey, there’s something more to be included in this work.” There is the American resistance toward the so-called craziness of alternative medicine, or of inventors, or of artists, all the outsiders who can’t bang the door down to get the kind of recognition they often deserve. Of course, there are the crazies who do not deserve recognition. How are you going to tell which is which? Well, the crazies have a role, too. They are the disturbers of the outmoded conventions of our society. This is a dance that’s going on all the time in America.

Forty years after I began my study of it, consciousness has now become a very serious object of study in the scientific community. The definition of consciousness, of course, must keep changing because no one (includ­ing myself) can pin it down very well. So all of our work is evolution­ary and improvisatory. I may seem to be stumbling around trying to articulate something that is important to me because my perception of it keeps changing and I don’t know exactly how to express it. But that is really the way most important things are.

Am I hopeful for America? Well, I was able to do what I did with the Deep Listening Convergence because I am in America. That is hopeful. I would not necessarily have been able to do the project elsewhere. Be­cause I am an American I can do what I have to do. Right here. I want to keep freedom alive and happening at least in my own heart and mind with the hope that others can do that too.


1. I say “many worlds” because it depends on the ingredients, who’s making the music.
2. See, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
3. See Pauline Oliveros, “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence,” Music­works 75 (Fall 1999): 14–20. This article is also available on a number of sites online (as of September 2007), including
4. Sonic Meditations I was published by Smith Publications in 1971. See; also, both accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
5. See, for example,, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
6. This was a forerunner to events such as this:, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
7. See and, both accessed Sept. 18, 2007. Nameless Sound is directed by David Dove.
8. The Art Guys—Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing—are artist collaborators who made the Resounding Vision award that I received: a delightful small sound sculpture. See, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
9. You can still hear a lot of cicadas and birds, but not in the density of my own early experience.
10. See and, both accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
11. Though I must add that you can practice in the urban jungle, too!
12. On My Lai, see, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
13. I should add that, on the railroad you’re not only on a track. If you’re lucky you’ll be sitting in a window seat watching the world go by.
14. It is a powerful thing for conductors to handle more than one orchestra, no doubt (and it would take a lot of scholarship to trace the impact for orchestras and audiences).
My “American Music” 403
15. See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Viking Adult, 1999).
16. See, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
17. For a description and requirements see, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
18. You are welcome to join DEEPLanytime. To do so, go to, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
19. See Deep Listening Institute, Ltd. Newsletter (Fall 2006).
20. See for a description, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
21. Go to, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
22. Go to, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.
23. Deep Listening (with the Deep Listening Band—Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, and Panaiotis, New Albion, NA022).
24. See, accessed Sept. 18, 2007.

© Pauline Oliveros 2011

Sounding the Margins - Collected Writings 1992-2009

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